Here in the Land of Literary Humanities and Other Liberal Arts (so, including maths and physics), “research” can look very different from more usual images and preconceptions:
Yes, medievalists and other humanities scholarly types spend a lot of time on Facebook, just like anyone else. Some of our sort of Facebook activity is even perfectly serious and scholarly and stuff, and much as one might expect from our research interests and their intersection with teaching & learning:
… and we may shift around unpredictably between geeking out and nerdery:
Sometimes geeky humanities research people even manage to come up with something useful, in the form of a commercially-exploitable commodity:
Our kind of research-activity isn’t always so immediately obvious. Our intellectual output, as you can already see from the images above, includes a lot of invisible intangibles: ideas. Facebook posts, shares, links, and discussions will in turn generate further ideas. A lot of our work goes on in that way, between the lines; for literary-humanities people, even more of our work is reading between the lines in text, looking for further invisible intangibles and ideas in the spaces and silences there.
What someone like me does as “research work” includes the following activities:
- Talking to people:
often in human-sociable mode with the use of triggers for intellectual stimulus and enticements to intellectual engagement (coffee, music, paintings, exhibitions, food, museums, movies, walks in parks and on beaches, pubs).
principally in its basic sense of asking questions, discussing in Platonic / Bakhtinian dialogue, discussing in fuller more feminist conversation vs. simple binary dialectics; questioning everything; being as purely skeptical, intellectually open, and imaginative as humanly possible.
anything that involves words counts.
- Looking at things:
some of which might look irrelevant to anyone else, some of which look irrelevant to the researcher too; some are irrelevant, some turn out not be, and some seem irrelevant until they reveal their relevance much later and usually in an unexpected way. Thus are honed the talent-tools of intuition, imaginative association, and trusting one’s instincts (or, the good kinds of self-assurance and self-knowledge).
- In the manner of the Baudelairian dandy, “flâner.”
- Looking at things:
as above but specifically looking at words.
Principally wandering around in a library. Other places with books too, like the books exhibit at a conference, or a good bookshop. Also the internet.
- Thinking again.
as mindfulness-meditation, including rituals of preparation and self-purification, deep breathing, exercises in centring and focus, to aid the development of powers of reflexion.
of the sort that tries to locate everything kicking and jiggling around in the mind, assemble it in one place, and see how it can all be pulled together, knitted, woven, networked.
of the sort that tries to empty out a busy mind and leave a nice clear clean place for fresh intellectual work.
- More reading:
Rereading, skim-reading, reading footnotes and bibilographies, reading indices and tables of contents.
- And more reading:
Reading, analysing, and synthesising information from databases of primary and secondary sources; or, further reading of bibliographies writ larger.
- Thinking some more.
- Furrowing the brow.
“errer” in the sense of wandering, seemingly haphazardly, often appearing to be going down the “wrong” roads, but happy to take many “false” turnings and not worried about it so long as every choice of path is a good one, following curiosity and interest. Thus can one relax into a state of beatific calm, knowing that erring is how one becomes knowledgeable and wise, through finding out about many things, and exploring each as interesting in itself rather than in service to an ulterior motive.
in accepting error as a necessary part of research, the better to avoid the only true Faults that are fallacy, argumentative fail, pseudo-science, and blinkered pseudo-thought. Embracing the “errors” of tangents, digressions, deviations, wrong turnings, and barking up the wrong tree. One learns from them; the more one errs, the more one learns, and the more one learns about how one learns and about how learning itself works. Thus does one become learned. And wise.
in the sense advocated by The Idler.
- Yet more reading:
The Idler and other things that look like digressions or procrastination but aren’t.
- Unthinking, rethinking, thinking afresh and anew.
- Repeating all of the above, in various order, to exercise and build and hone the intellectual and imaginative muscles, and to sustain and develop (and sustainably develop) the mind as a repository and live engine of ideas and other knowledge-materials.
- Intellectual adventuring:
as a way of life, that permeates all activities, in a lifelong quest: research is never just one fixed-term project, it’s an inter-connected corpus of networked projects and ideas, of all shapes and sizes. Some research takes a long time. Some starts and stops; not necessarily in a linear progression. One’s research is only finished when the life of the mind ends. That might be when one dies, and it might be when friends, students, written output, and all circulation and continuation and conversation about one’s ideas come to an end.
- Adventure, like quest(ion)ing and errantry and contemplation and idling, is a long-term long-distance “slow movement” of artisan hand-crafting, skill, talent, and artistry.
These concepts are of course very medieval, and part of the universal medievalism of the practice of everyday life. For further motivational posters of this sort, see: Buzzfeed
- Adventure is often of an armchair sort:
a sofa or chaise-longue or similar may be necessary, to maintain blood-flow to the head by keeping the feet raised, and to enable the outer physical stretching and wriggling that accompany inner mental movement.
- Pacing up and down, often accompanied by gesticulation, sometimes punctuated by muttering, sighing, groaning, and making illegible notes.
- Wearing dressing-gowns, smoking-jackets, Jedi pyjamas, and other apparel derived from louche lounge-wear, Enlightenment déshabillé, and martial arts.
- I nearly forgot what to an outsider look like the obvious Ends of our research: the quantifiable end products of writing. And publication.
- Access to outstanding libraries: some of which could be even more online than it already is: what would be expensive would be a Dream Vision Ideal virtual reality libary where you can wander the stacks, peruse books on the shelf and their neighbours and neighbourhood, and fly up floors, shafts, and to high vaults. I dream.
- As a compromise: time and travel-fare to be in an outstanding library for a useful length of time, periodically. Toronto would be our main local one; or Stanford; and a number of other more specialised ones.
- Minimal writing tools: I could survive with this old tablet, cheap Muji notebooks (unruled for the unruly), and cheap clicky black pens.
These last two are the most important and precious requirements for humanities/arts research. They are intangible non-commodities. Very appropriate.
My campus has been in a permanent state of building work since I arrived here. I am told it’s been like that for even longer. It looks and sounds like a building site.
My workplace is the opposite of an appropriate working environment. I’m being unfair: it’s merely an opposite, obviously there are others and worse. Universities that have been turned into vocational, technical, and professional training
schools centres; the misguided unwitting irony of making onself the contrary of the grandes écoles. Universities that have been closed down, blown up, burned down. Universities that barely exist as a potential idea, in places where uttering such an idea would get you locked up, shot, burned alive.
UBC is a public institution so there’s probably something going on with being economically productive through creating jobs and sustaining the economic health of other industries. The board that runs the place includes a lot of people whose main interest / point of existence / purpose in life is property. Property and the endowment have gained in importance to the university as cuts in government spending have increased. Conservative provincial and national governments are interested primarily in commodification, commerce, immediate usefulness, short-term profit, and at least a semblance of an immediate End of jobs. Ticking boxes, producing statistics (however manipulable and mendacious they might be) that prove… something… tangible and quantifiable.
The university is in a difficult and complex position.
I guess, trying to be fair and think of other sides.
The last year has been horrible. I have not had an uninterrupted quiet day at UBC (not even–certainly not–in the library) since at least this time two years ago. Yes, I admit that I have high standards on silence: certain medieval monastic environments are after all the model for other scholarly places, from the cathedral school and scriptorium to Google.
Construction means drilling, other heavy machinery, hammering; these I can actually live with better, as a rhythmical noise can be adapted to and as I can see a visible need for them. I’m a simple creature: if I can see a man doing work, using tools in his hands, I understand and respect that. It is clearly work. (I am very understanding if the aesthetic qualities of individual workmen happen to enhance the view.)
The problem is that there is no mutual reciprocal respect by The Suits (to whom emails of complaint are sent, as the responsible authorities and Strategic Planners and Leaders) for those of us doing less visually-obvious labour, those of us working in the invisible abstract, in the mind; yet those are all characteristics shared by The Suits’ own kind of work. We should share common ground as idea-workers; we are condemned to division by politics, ideology, and language; crucially, in our different attitudes towards language, its purpose, and its use and abuse.
Trucks that beep when reversing. Especially if they’re reversing really slowly, and have a human guide (like with early motor-cars), and are in a contained area behind fencing. UBC Building Services vehicles that choose the area in front of my building and under my office window for reversing, parking, moving around for no very obvious reason. I should add that in my office I need to keep the window open in order to have air (and, most of the year, not to suffocate in heat).
And let’s not get into the fencing: for the last year, every time I walked in to work, I would find my route had changed due to being fenced off, or in, or around. And there would be legions of (often but not always) obnoxious people in high-vis yellow and yellow hard hats, issuing instructions, “helping” people across the road, and if you were really lucky, finding you an alternative route into your own damn building.
I loathe the imperative at the best of times. I hate being patronised and being told what to do by stupid(er) people, the sort who are delighted to have a little authority and enjoy atretching it as far as they can (credit to them, in fairness, with intelligence and imagination there). I nearly lost it more than once when told “I’m just following orders.” Seriously? On a university campus? Feet away from the History department? Customer relations didn’t figure out that local cultural sensitivity might mean never using or even thinking that phrase?
I didn’t have much luck with conversations, though I had some innocuous interactions too. There was also a lot of swearing. I did temper my swearing somewhat by replacing it with whistling great classic French, Irish, and socialist-internationalist-pacifist revolutionary airs when forced to wait around while a fecking beeping behemoth snailed across a road in front of what it might imagine to be admiring throngs.
Ah yes, I wasn’t going to get into the fencing, and there I did and got into a right tangle with it. I had dreams about the fencing, regularly, about routes into work changing. The usual nightmares about being late for class; though I was often late for class by that stage anyway, so you would have thought my subconscious might have got used to it. (Academic life is a continuation of educational institutionalisation in bad ways too.) Fencing and its movement had the positive of getting me thinking again along Medieval/ist lines about “adventure,” “quest / quaestio,” and “erring.” I was also reading François Rigolot’s excellent book on the idea of “error” in the Renaissance. I tried not to think about labyrinths too much, for that way madness lies, and reading Sarah Monette and Jeff VanderMeer was an adequate compromise.
Interactions with unintelligent, inhuman, insensitive, and possibly insentient pseudo-people bossing me around for my own good, and not responsing to questions, got me down about a side-project on conversation and/as humanism. I hope I can restore and recuperate some of that work in progress. My reading on post-humanism and cyberstuff felt increasingly depressing, rather than gleeful and fun. My side-reading took a post-apocalyptic and dystopian turn, to give myself grounds for hope through alternate possible worlds. Ursula Le Guin still makes me cry, which I take to be a good sign, that I have not lost all feeling and dulled.
Now that the beeping trucks have diminished somewhat, I’ve been thinking about how to improve them. This could be an INNOVATION of the sort that might make money for my institution, perhaps paired with research on those of us who have been damaged by the years of constant beeping, to see how much better we fare with the alternatives:
- A selection of merry tunes (at least 100 different ones per vehicle per day), such as…
- themes to great horror movies
- themes from other drama: Bond, film noir, action; anything featuring high-speed car chases, oversize vehicles, and big explosions
- EUROVISION!!! 60 years’ worth. Plus semi-finals and so on from more recent years. Heck, we could Start A UBC Thing: “A Song For UBC.” University income through subscription and gambling.
- the Ride of the Valkyries and other Great Operatic Hits
- full operas, especially those that are rarely perfomed due to their great length; in cooperation with the Music department and Opera programme; perhaps each week of the year could be devoted to a different composer?
- with an interactive app game for naming the work and composer (for movie sound-tracks, the movie and year and one other piece of information) as fast as possible; pay $0.99 for the app, weekly prizes.
- with this as with all the above options, all trucks would have to play the same piece at the same time. That way you could follow the music as you walked around campus. Otherwise there would be cacophony.
- alternatively, trucks could play different parts and be used by musicians as instruments in composition and improvisation around campus
The ideal, however, is silence.
- if we must have noise, then all workers in this workplace–students, faculty, staff–should be issued with the same top-notch ear-protectors as construction workers. We are working in the same place, under the same conditions, and our work is if anything more sensitive to noise and affected worse by excessive noise.
- if UBC’s Building Services and Department for Strategic Planning and Mastery of the Universe are as concerned as they say they are about Health And Welfare and Risk Assessment/Avoidance, I’m afraid that beeping or other sound is no use against the ugg-shuffling e-zombie hordes. Nor are humans in high-vis yellow: I have seen a crossing-guard caper like a motleyed fool (rather than a more dignified Knight Who Says “Ni”) and fail to attract the attention of a downward-gazer.
The solution: poke other senses, most obviously smell. With nice smells, like coffee and freshly-baked bread.
- add to the student registration contract that they must turn over control to the University of any ear-isolating electronic devices. In a first stage, this should be a condition for using UBC WiFi. Someone un-headphoned can hear a musical reversing truck. For the be-headphoned, the truck music will interrupt their regular programming (or the beeping noise, if the e-zombie’s choice of music was particularly awful) and they will also be directed to help the nearest GPS-located person in need of assistance (deaf, with small children, aged, etc.) as part of a de-isolating re-humanising incentive (patentable?).
- or, preferably, silence and eco-friendly quiet electric vehicles; silence for all except for narcissists plugged into their Personal Soundtrack To My Life™: their programming would be turned over to the Official UBC Interruption Channel (music or beeping, depending on how mean we’re feeling), without disrupting the peace and quiet of anyone else
Voilà. Add the above to Obrienaternal Innovations in Applied Medievalism; the practical, concrete counter-balance to the Old Talks Series and other more orthodox written output. This research produced today has been tangential to any of my current scholarly projects, or to the larger longer-term one (“what is literature/fiction and why is it amazeballs”), or to teaching, or to the TLEF-wing of teaching (except for that first part about what research is, which might be useful and uplifting for a less experienced research assistant). Yet writing this post–and the compositional and creative work that wove it–has resulted in immediately practically useful ideas, which I hadn’t considered when I started writing it. Ideas that would contribute to the sum of human happiness and make money. Just the sort of thing my university is looking for.
There would be no such tangents without “main projects” from which they shoot off, and vice versa: all offshoots are interconnected. Invention and innovation are human, unpredictable, wild. Research needs breathing-space, freedom of movement, and time.
We also need time because only time will tell which are really tangents at all; as any Medievalist knows, relative primacy may change historically. Any humanities scholar knows to take the long wide view. As did truly great academic institutions, like the Institute for Advanced Study in Einstein’s time and throughout its history as a haven for refugee scholars fleeing totalitarianism.
The current state of education policy here in BC and in Canada may not seem too dire in comparison, but phrases like “learning outcomes” should set as many warning-bells ringing as “just following orders.” Parallel tinklings might have seemed over-thinking paranoia in 1931 but would be prescient in 1932 and tragically premonitory in 1933, and would also translate to exemplary job-creation and economic growth in 1934.
Be careful what you wish for, as all good fairy-tales will tell you. The more reason to keep reading, thinking about, writing, preserving, writing about, and teaching the whole literary continuum that includes fairy-tales, folk-tales, folk wisdom, myth, legend, fable; all things fabulus and fantastical and fictional; the marvellous and magical; the medieval, medievalist, and medievalising. Remember Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Riddley Walker, and indeed most recently The Buried Giant.
And it’s only mid-afternoon, I have hours of pottering and pootling and general Medievalising ahead.
When I was in Dublin, some of my colleagues each had a weekly “research day.” For at least one, this was set in stone and in their contract. This meant that they could teach, for example, on Fridays nor attend meetings then, or schedule or do any other university business. The fact that the individual concerned was a nice good person stopped my from thinking they were being a bit of a ****. It took me a while to realise they were also being wise.
I have colleagues here and have had colleagues, and profs, elsewhere whose approaches differed. There would be insistence on only teaching on certain days and at certain times, and any rendez-vous for any purpose would entail negotiations. There was a sense of disgruntlement no matter what the end result (and less than jolly relations with any staff and department-running faculty involved in scheduling teaching), that any time not set for teaching was potential research time. Any incursion on this “free” time was an assault on freedom. The usual tactics would invoke the rhetoric of Academic and Intellectual Freedom and moral-political-emotional blackmail. The end result, in my experience, is discontent, discomfort, and general unhappiness all round.
Remember you are a public servant with a responsibility to your students? Feel guilty and err on the side of generosity? Set no boundaries at all, and as my colleague A.Si. put it, “mais tu te feras manger !” – by colleagues, by students, by everyone. I’ve come close to this. Not good, not recommended.
It’s also too easy, in my sort of research, to translate “I work all the time because my brain is working all the time” to “my time is flexible.”
This is another of my errors. My job being a teaching one, it’s tricky to try to set aside full days for research (whose subject-matter, I should add, includes teaching). Or even blocks of useful time, three to four hours. Not without cutting into evenings and weekends: and they must remain “free-free” because of spouse, domestic everyday life (e.gg. buying coffee and washing Jedi lounge-wear), and for mental and physical health.
Right now, I have the luxury of being in summer session. So for May and June, that means:
- Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday: teaching and related work
- Monday & Friday: research
- If a meeting has to be scheduled on a Monday or Friday, the surrounding half-day becomes available for other meetings; but one whole day must remain unbookable
I will do something similar in the winter session, the main one for our academic year:
- Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: teaching and related work
- Tuesday: any extra marking + meetings; use other time for reading, this could be a good time for journal-reading in the library as that can be done in shorter more intensive spurts, on shorter pieces, and be reasonably interruptable
- Thursday: research day
- Friday afternoon after my last class ends: research half-day
I shall end this post with some literary-critical reading; in comment on an extreme example of The Published Book As Research End Product: